It’s a problem that affects 700,000 people in the ten-county Tampa Bay area: food insecurity.
Thomas Mantz, the Executive Director of the group Feeding Tampa Bay says food insecurity is when people like you and me don’t have consistent access to food due to a lack of money or other resources.
"Most hunger is inside of our homes and most people that are hungry today or food insecure today typically have jobs, homes and other obligations," Mantz said. "The reality of their world is that their income doesn’t meet their obligations, and they’re caught short month after month after month, and food is something that you can manipulate in your budget."
Mantz’s group attempts to fend off food insecurity with regular food distribution drives at dozens of locations around the area, like Foster Elementary School in Tampa.
"In a school like Foster Elementary, some 95-plus percent of the kids are on free and reduced lunch, and so it’s a great outlet for us to feed those folks over a weekend, over the course of a week and over the course of a summer," Mantz added.
Under the arrangement, researchers and students from the USF College of Arts and Sciences and USF College of Public Health will work with Feeding Tampa Bay to study the long-term health effects of food insecurity.
"The idea is you take the provider of food, the major food bank in the area, put it together with the major research institution and you come up with best practices to address the food insecurity of students and families living right here in Tampa Bay," said Eric Eisenberg, dean of the USF College of Arts and Sciences.
"If we make an investment now in reducing hunger, the cost of that is much less than if you wait for people to get sick down the road because of hunger and food insecurity early on in their lives," Himmelgreen said.
The USF researchers have already looked at Feeding Tampa Bay’s BackPack Program. On Fridays, more than 1,000 local elementary and middle school students and their families get enough food to get through the weekend.
"We think and some of our initial data is suggesting that kids are doing better if they go to school on Monday and they had food over the weekend to eat, they’re better prepared for going to school, their attention span is higher," Himmelgreen said. "So that’s the kind of research we want to focus on over the coming years that document the effects of these kinds of programs on health and well-being."
He added that they’ll also look at mobile food pantries, which provide meals to families living in food deserts – areas where access to fresh fruits and vegetables are limited, and food swamps – areas where fast food and unhealthy food choices rule the day.
"We’re going to build a lot more research into programming, the kinds of things that you’re seeing here today, to evaluate the efficacy of these programs and also come up with new kinds of programs that are more effective in mitigating the effects of hunger and food insecurity," Himmelgreen said.
There’s a student group on campus, Feeding America USF, that already assists Feeding Tampa Bay. Student Jahne Hatter was among those distributing food at Foster.
"I feel like it’s definitely for a good cause and getting food in these children’s stomachs is, definitely I can say an accomplishment," the international studies senior said. "So if we can keep doing this so we don’t have to eventually worry down the road that they’re not getting anything to eat, that’s where I’m looking forward to a day where we don’t have to do this, where they’re home with food."
And Hatter added while some students’ families may seem embarrassed to have to receive food, others realize that it’s just the circumstances they’re facing for now.
"You’re trying to provide for your kid, and, I mean I guess the initial reaction, the kids are so happy like they saw the bags of apples down the hall and they just went screaming, so, to get that reaction out of kids it’s a great thing," Hatter said. We know that they’re getting their tummies fed, so that’s what’s most important for sure."